Tickets to an Awesome Future Are Free:
Gender, Literature, and VIDA’s Count
A couple weeks ago, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts released statistics regarding gender representation in forty of the country’s most prominent literary publications and reviews. With almost no exception, men greatly outnumbered women, often by margins of more than 3 to 1.
Eileen Myles’ beautiful piece called “Being Female” at The Awl and Roxane Gay’s “Bitches Be Trippin” over at HTML Giant are two of the most articulate responses I’ve come across. If you’re serious about writing and consider yourself a forward-thinking person, you should read them.
Here are some of the most popular critical replies to VIDA’s statistics, and my thoughts on them:
Reply #1: It must be that women just don’t submit their work as much as men.
It’s nearly impossible to get reliable statistics on something like this, as it would involve the voluntary, honest, comprehensive cooperation of many different publications and editors, all of whose submission methods would have to be standardized and thus measurable against one another. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a big, honking gender discrepancy in submissions was the norm for most publications. There are too many reasons why this might be true, and they span realms of culture, politics, economy, class, media, socialization, and education. We shouldn’t be surprised if women submit their work less than men in a world where the following things are facts: girls’ self-esteem is systematically destroyed—even the most powerful women in the country, like Hillary Clinton, get called out for her fat ankles; one in four women are spending their mental and physical energy addicted to an eating disorder instead of focusing on art; one in four women are spending their mental energy recovering from domestic violence and/or rape instead of focusing on art; women make substantially less money than men across all racial demographics, thus forcing their focus away from creative dreams and onto work and mothering; even the most well-known women writers don’t make it onto the high school syllabus; the most influential publications are sending little to no signals that women are welcome on their page . . . ad nauseum.
Reply #2: It must be because editors don’t publish women who submit their work and/or they don’t solicit woman writers.
Editors, too, are brought up in a socio-political system that biases us all towards men and away from women—and the only way to counter and undo this system is with awareness and action. Do you have unchecked biases in favor of male writers? Do you view the same material differently based on whether a woman or man writes it? Be honest and brave with yourself when you consider these questions. And if you don’t think editors should have to solicit writers, or that this is not the process by which good writing gets published, then think a little harder. The assumption that good writing simply appears at the doorsteps of editors and asks to be published is a caricature of the entire history of literature. Almost all journals and presses solicit writers. Many of them, spanning from the indie to the high brow, don’t even accept unsolicited submissions. Want to solicit good women writers, but don’t know who? Read more women! Or start with this list of women writers compiled at the Look Touch blog. Be determined not to publish the next issue of your journal until you’ve found an equitable mix of amazing writing across genders. There’s nothing “inauthentic” about this; it’s the basic process by which all publishing happens, coupled with a bit of consciousness.
Reply #3: Women just don’t read or write the kind of “literature” that deserves attention.
This sentiment is generally either expressed in an underhanded way or dressed up to the nines. After all, folks don’t want to come right out and say “what women read and write—if they read or write at all—is stupid, and what men read and write is important” because, on some level, we realize how untrue, hateful, and straight up lazy that kind of thinking/feeling is. Despite, it’s a sneaky brand of vitriol that constantly pervades and informs our discussions, and it needs to be called out in all its manifestations. Let’s take Peter Stothard, for instance, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. In response to VIDA’s numbers, he was quoted at The Guardian blog thusly: “I’m not too appalled by our figure, as I’d be very surprised if the authorship of published books was 50/50. And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.”
Here’s what I have to say to Stothard’s quote, and his whole brand of thinking in general:
- It is impossible to quantify a claim of such a broad and asinine nature. The only thing that could even come close to quantifying this claim would be if someone used market research to try and weed out who buys what. But market research’s infusion with capitalist and misogynist ideologies (as its primary goal is to figure out what the best way to sell sell sell is) makes it a highly suspect way to explore the kinds of huge political and social issues at hand here. The Guardian article itself goes on to state that “the industry source for book data, Nielsen, does not keep records of authors’ gender.” Meanwhile, VIDA puts out a years’ worth of careful quantitative research and still has to perform gymnastics in order to prove their point.
- If inherent crappiness or non-notability is indeed a problem of a particular genre like, say, paperback romance that is marketed towards women, then what of its male-marketed genre analogues? What of courtroom dramas, medical thrillers, paperback espionage? What of Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, and Michael Crichton—all of whom have been reviewed in the TLS?
- Even if it’s true that women only read and write a certain kind of writing (which it isn’t—but let’s do a thought experiment), then how can you leave out an entire fifty percent of the population’s alleged reading preferences—an entire half of every single cultural, racial, and economic demographic—from the most mainstream writing publications, and still claim no bias? This is a pile of chunky spew covered in a huge dump. There is no excuse for intelligent folks with critical thinking capacities to let this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy off the hook. If it’s not published or talked about, people aren’t going to read it. If it’s not read, no one’s going to care about it. If no one cares about it, no one’s going to publish or talk about it. If we don’t consciously intervene in the status quo—which, at this point, you have to be engaged in a scary level of numbing and denial in order to be disregarding—then the status quo won’t change. This is how systems work: they maintain homeostasis at all costs. It takes the concentrated, conscious energy of resistance and revolt to alter them.
Reply #4: I’m a woman, and I write and publish, and I know magazine x, y, and z that publishes lots of women, so therefore this obviously isn’t the problem you’re making it out to be.
I think it’s great if you’re a successful woman writer. With all my heart, I applaud you and I wish you the best. I also applaud publications and presses that publish women in equal numbers to men. And people everywhere who flip a big middle finger to the gender binary and all of its implications. But using your own experience to dismiss demonstrable large-scale inequalities is an incredibly self-involved way to filter reality. A handful of stories that go against the grain do not undo statistical analyses or structural inequality. Anecdote is not evidence, as you know if you’ve ever taken Research Methods 101, which I fear many of VIDA’s critics have not. Statistical analyses are not perfect and nobody who uses them in a serious way has ever claimed otherwise. But statistics do something that stereotyped generalizations and personal anecdotes can’t: they get a feel for the big picture. They point to the outlines of big realities. They call upon our critical minds to consider what’s happening en masse, and then attend to it.
Reply #5: Gee, we didn’t realize the extent of this problem. It’s obviously systemic because, if it’s not, that means women just inherently suck . . . and if I really think that women just inherently suck, that means I must be a misogynist, right? . . . but misogyny is a systemic socio-political problem . . . wait a minute. . . .
Reply #5A: Thanks, VIDA. We’re going to look at our own stats, try to put aside our deep-seated reactionary defenses, and talk about this issue with other people in an honest, nuanced, brave, and forward-thinking manner, so we can live in a world that rules maximally for everyone in it regardless of their gender or any other social marker. We recognize that generally, where women are published in equity with men, it is because people have raised awareness and taken concrete steps to alter the status quo. Someday, it won’t have to be this way, as our work now will alter the status quo for the future. We’re going to take accountability for educating ourselves and others. There’s a future-train headed to awesome-land and we want to get on it!
Tickets are free, friends! Hope to see you there.
Carolyn is a writer, performer, and social worker living in Northampton, Massachusetts. She is the author of the chapbook Ouch, Humans.